Clare Simmons

title.none: Johnston, George Eliot (Clare Simmons)

identifier.other: baj9928.0611.001 06.11.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Clare Simmons, The Ohio State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Johnston, Judith. George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism. Making of the Middle Ages, 6. Turnout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. ix, 210. $80.00 978-2-503-50773-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.11.01

Johnston, Judith. George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism. Making of the Middle Ages, 6. Turnout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. ix, 210. $80.00 978-2-503-50773-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Clare Simmons
The Ohio State University

George Eliot's novels are often cited as the greatest English examples of literary realism. In George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism, Judith Johnston complicates George Eliot's reputation as a realist by demonstrating the novelist's indebtedness to the romance tradition and medieval literature in her two late novels Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Marian Evans, who re- created herself as the person of letters George Eliot, was one of the most-learned and widest-read scholars of her generation. Johnston's study is the first, though, to show the extent to which this icon of modern skepticism and social realism was influenced by the Middle Ages. Basing her claims on careful analysis of Eliot's reading and notes, Johnston shows the ways in which Eliot's artistic vision was shaped by her awareness of the medieval.

Johnston begins her study by situating Eliot's work in the context of Victorian medievalism. As she notes, the Middle Ages had a powerful attraction for Victorian society, and although a number of studies have explored medievalism as a social and aesthetic phenomenon, more analysis is needed of the extent of the Victorian reverence for the medieval past. In this first section, Johnston usefully emphasizes the work of Anna Jameson but nevertheless understates the amount of work that has been done on Victorian medievalism. George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism began as Johnston's doctoral dissertation in the 1980s, and she does not acknowledge some of the more recent work on medievalism as a cultural phenomenon affecting many disciplines: for example, the continuing Studies in Medievalism series; art historians such as Clive Wainwright; and literary critics and historians such as Kathleen Biddick, R. Howard Bloch, Allan J. Frantzen, Norman Cantor, and Herbert Tucker. In the last two decades, moreover, both medieval scholars and scholars of medievalism have increasingly recognized that not just the Victorian era but every age interprets the Middle Ages through its own preoccupations and concerns.

The thin contexualization of Victorian medievalism would be more of a problem were Johnston's central concern medievalism as a whole. In fact, she is more interested in Eliot's knowledge of medieval texts and how this influenced her creative processes.

The project is on surer ground once Johnston turns to "case studies" from Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, where she makes a number of ingenious but largely convincing suggestions as to Eliot's indebtedness to medieval literature in conceiving plots, characters, and in particular, names. Chapter One, "Dorothea Brooke and Medieval Hagiography," is a detailed analysis of the novel's prominent evocation of St. Theresa in the characterization of Dorothea Brooke, showing Eliot's indebtedness of Anna Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art. Johnston ably shows Dorothea as aligning herself with the medieval virgin-martyr tradition. This would seem to give Johnston the opportunity to speculate on a question that has intrigued many Middlemarch readers: is marriage between Dorothea and Casaubon consummated? Johnston does not answer this directly, but does point out the constriction and restraint that come with Dorothea's marriage choice.

The second chapter turns to Will Ladislaw, arguing that in his characterization, "Eliot's use of medieval religious allegory is pronounced." For Johnston, medieval allegory provides precedents for both Will's representation as an everyman on a quest and the major use of coincidences in Middlemarch's plot. Johnston recognizes that a work can be both chivalric and mock-chivalric at the same time, but her use of Piers Plowman does not quite work for me: is Will an everyman on a quest, or more of an ultra-perfect knight-errant? The coincidences in the plot also undermine the quest-structure: Will finds his past, but he was not actually looking for it.

Chapter Three contains some very interesting and generally convincing parallels between Tertius Lydgate and the poet John Lydgate. As in the case of Piers Plowman, Johnston notes, Eliot probably derived her knowledge of John Lydgate's work and literary reputation more from sources such as Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry than direct reading, and so Tertius Lydgate's "activities and outcomes . . . mirror what appeared, for George Eliot, to be John Lydgate's eventual shortcomings as a poet who wrote to order for his patron, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester" (107). At the same time, Lydgate's life- story can be seen as in the mode of the medieval exemplum; Johnston notes that Eliot's notebook includes quotations from Lydgate's Fall of Princes. Moving to Daniel Deronda, the fourth chapter again explores the tensions between realism and romance as it connects Daniel with the chivalric quest, noting that he manages to reconcile "the chivalric and the religious code" as he discovers his life- mission and his Jewish identity. The last two chapters connect Gwendolen Harleth and Mira Lapidoth with medieval depictions of women. As she did with Lydgate, Johnston explains the medieval resonances of Gwendolen's name as they would have been interpreted by Victorian readers. In the case of these two characters, Johnston points to medievalist rather than medieval sources, such as the work of Reginald Heber and Charlotte Yonge for the idea of "Gwendolen" and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and particularly the figure of Rebecca the Jewess for Mira Lapidoth's creation. Yet for Heber and Yonge, the Middle Ages were a time of Christianity--corrupt Christianity, perhaps, but nevertheless the Middle Ages represented for them a society bound by faith. It is interesting that when Eliot, who sometimes proclaimed herself an atheist, talks of faith in Daniel Deronda, she is discussing Judaism; perhaps Johnston might have speculated more on the ways that Eliot's use of the Middle Ages differs from that of many of her medievalist contemporaries, who saw not just an inspiration for form but also for values.

Johnston's choice to structure her chapters around central characters is interesting, but it does miss some opportunities to explore other characters. For example, Rosamond Vincy's first name, recalling Henry II's fabled mistress, surely reflects the social aspirations of her parents; the name becomes ironic when Rosamond in effect refuses to allow Lydgate to enclose her in a bower. This is a use of medieval motif, but the effect is almost parodic. Still, even this example reinforces Johnston's claim that Eliot's construction of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda was influenced by her awareness of medieval (or medievalist) romance. While a few of the medieval connections are strained, most are well-researched and very plausible. George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism should appeal both to lovers of Eliot's works and to anyone interested in the influence of medievalism on nineteenth-century British culture.